An Indo-Bangladesh joint power project on the edge of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh has led to widespread protests in the neighbouring country against the NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation). The anti-NTPC protests now threaten to spill-over to India with Bangladeshi and Indian activists planning to picket NTPC offices in Kolkata and New Delhi in October-end.
Bangladeshi environmentalists say the proposed coal-based power plant that the NTPC is to construct will cause irreparable environmental damage to the Sundarbans. They also allege that the NTPC has flouted Indian environmental laws by taking up the construction of the Rampal thermal power project within a 10 kilometre distance from the Sundarbans. Indian laws prohibit any environmentally hazardous activity such a short distance away from a tiger reserve or a biosphere. However, Bangladeshi environmental laws are more lenient.
The Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world with a fragile ecosystem. Two thirds of it is located in Bangladesh and the rest in India. It is home to the magnificent and endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is scheduled to lay the foundation stone of the plant, located in Bagerhat district, on October 22. This has led activists to protest demanding a relocation of the plant away from the Sundarbans. The activists have also been critical of the Indian High Commissioner who they allege claimed it was “rumour” that the plant would damage the environment.
There were sizeable protests in Bangladesh in the last week of September, including a ‘Long March’ by hundreds of activists from Dhaka to the site of the proposed power plant. The protesters, comprising an umbrella of activist groups and political parties from the left to the right, have threatened to continue their protests with Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina.
Noted economist and professor at Bangladesh’s Jahangirnagar University Anu Muhammad was in India recently to sensitize Indian activist groups and academicians about the environmentally damaging potential of the Rampal power plant. Sources in these groups said they have chalked out a strategy to hold joint protests in India and Bangladesh in the coming months.
Bangladesh and India had signed a Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation in the power sector during Hasina’s New Delhi visit in January 2010. It envisaged India assisting in construction of power plants as also supplying power to Bangladesh to help the latter tide over its severe power crisis. The Bangladesh PM is slated to inaugurate a power grid substation at western Bheramara on October 5. The substation is the entry point of the transmission line from India, through which Bangladesh will get 250 MW power from NTPC with the provision of additional 250 MW that it can purchase from India at market rates. PM Manmohan Singh is expected to join the ceremony from his office in New Delhi through video conferencing.
The launch of power transmission ceremony is expected to pass off smoothly. But the proposed power plant has run into trouble. A group of lawyers filed a petition in the Dhaka High Court in end-September seeking the court to direct the government to stop the construction of the Rampal power plant. The petition claimed the power plant would destroy the mangrove forest and the livelihoods of the people living near it.
In January 2012, NTPC and the Bangladesh Power Development Board, a government owned power utility, entered into a joint venture to develop the 1,320 MW imported coal-based power plant. The INR 8,000 crore plant will initially depend on high-grade Indonesian coal but later shift to coal from Phulbari area in Bangladesh. The present site has been chosen as it is close to the Mongla Port and thereby allowing for easier access to the imported coal.
A government commissioned Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study done and released a couple of months back conceded to some amounts of pollution but claimed this would be under acceptable limits. The NTPC has claimed that the plant will use “super critical technology” that will reduce pollution and any environmental damage.
But the activists have opposed the environment department’s clearance of the EIA of the project as flawed. An independent EIA by a professor of Environmental Science at Khulna University which was reported widely in the Bangladesh media faulted the project on various counts. The report concluded that the “the selected area is not suitable to establish any type of coal-based power plant in the contexts of economic, social, physical and environment”.
The Bangladesh government has dismissed the protests as a design to spread canards, and accused the protesters of hindering the country’s industrial development as the project would solve some of Bangladesh’s acute power shortage.
NTPC officials were unavailable for comment. Sources in the government said the protests and demonstrations were being influenced by people in and outside Bangladesh who were unhappy with the closer India-Bangladesh ties in recent years. Bangladesh goes for polls later this year.